Every year around this time, the Administrative Office of the Courts issues an Annual Report and a Statistical Report. They are both interesting reads and give some insight into the state of our judiciary system. As Twain famously said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” I would not be so bold as to disagree with the great Mark Twain, but there are some interesting takeaways from this year’s statistics, especially when it comes to our criminal justice system.
The Supreme Court
Convicted defendants hoping to win an appeal will find little hope in the 2015 statistics. Of the 254 criminal appeals handled by our Supreme Court in FY2015, only 12 were reversed—that’s just 3 percent. Most resulted in an affirmance of the lower court result or a dismissal by the appellant or the Court.
This statistic reflects the fact that our Supreme Court very often is in a standard of review which requires deference to the findings of the lower court. An appeal is not a do-over of a trial. It is a review of legal issues raised by the defendant—and most often, the Supreme Court finds that the lower court got it right in the first place.
Our Supreme Court continues to do its work pretty efficiently. From filing to decision, a criminal appeal takes about 6 months on average. From the time all the briefing and arguing is done, our Court issues its decision in about 39 days—that’s pretty quick.
The Superior Court
Our felony trial court had 7,042 new cases in FY2015, down 7% from the prior year. Generally, the court’s caseload has declined in recent years, probably due to an increased emphasis on resolving minor cases before they go to the Grand Jury. So the court handles fewer cases, but they are generally more serious. Just 8 years ago, the court handled over 10,000 new filings. The decline in numbers will continue as jurisdiction for misdemeanor drug offenses has moved to the Court of Common Pleas.
Statewide, only 3% of cases go to trial—4% in New Castle County and less than 2% in the other counties. 70% of cases resolve by way of a plea agreement. The rest end up getting nolle prossed (State declines to prosecute), or sent to an alternative resolution like drug court. Only 1% of the cases were dismissed by the court.
Why do so many cases plead out? Why do so few go to trial? Well, in the first place, the AG selects which cases to prosecute, and generally they will prosecute strong cases, which encourages plea bargaining. Typically the prosecutor has pretty good evidence. More importantly, many of our criminal offenses carry minimum mandatory sentences set by the General Assembly, which is a real catalyst for plea deals. Finally, defendants with clean records are motivated to trade a potential felony conviction for a misdemeanor plea. By the way, the low percentage of trials is not limited to Delaware. Courts across the country have similar statistics.
So what if you go to trial? Statewide, juries found the defendant guilty 68% of the time and not guilty 21% of the time. The rest were hung juries, etc. Plea bargains are no picnic either. In FY2015, 75% of the pleas were to one or more of the original charges, with only 25% being pleas to reduced charges.
Our Superior Court takes about 170 days on a case from arrest to final disposition. Once indicted, the average case takes 105 days.
Court of Common Pleas
CCP continues to be our workhorse court, handling 103,176 misdemeanor filings in 2015. Almost half are in New Castle County. In addition, the CCP had 8,621 preliminary hearings in FY2015 (although most people waive their prelim). This year’s report did not have information about case results or timeframes.
Overall, these statistics are interesting, but do not say anything about a person’s individual case. Every case is different. If you find yourself in the Delaware court system, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney.
 I don’t focus on the Annual Report in this blog post, but it does have some interesting information. For example, the Annual Report states that the judiciary costs Delaware $95 million a year…well, more like a net of $83 million after counting the money that the judiciary pays into the General Fund (fees, costs, etc.). $83 million sounds like a lot, but when one considers that the judiciary is only 2.5% of the state budget, it seems like a small price to pay for an effective and respected justice system.